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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): Mass in b minor (BWV 232)

[I] Katherine Watson, soprano; Tim Mead, alto; Reinoud Van Mechelen, tenor; André Morsch, bass
Les Arts Florissants
Dir: William Christie
rec: Sept 2016, Paris, Philharmonie
Harmonia mundi - HAF 8905293.94 (2 CDs) (© 2018) (1.45'03")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

[II] Katherine Watson, soprano; Helen Charlston, mezzo-soprano; Iestyn Davies, alto; Gwylim Bowen, tenor; Neal Davies, bass
The Choir of Trinity College Cambridge; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Dir: Stephen Layton
rec: Jan 12 - 16, 2017, Cambridge, Trinity College Chapel
Hyperion - CDA68181/2 (2 CDs) (© 2018) (1.47'43")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet


Johann Sebastian Bach's Mass in b minor has a status which is close to that of his St Matthew Passion. No wonder, then, that hardly a year goes by without at least one new recording of this masterwork, which in the form in which it is performed today, dates from the very last year of his life. Therefore it is rightly considered one of his musical testaments, alongside the Kunst der Fuge. This also means that we cannot rely on any information about a performance in his lifetime. It is even questionable whether it has ever been performed in its ultimate form. The consequence is that no performance can claim 'authenticity' as far as the size of the performing forces are concerned. Joshua Rifkin, who is one of the main advocates of the view that Bach's sacred music was usually performed with one voice per part, recorded the Mass in b minor in this manner. It certainly represents an interesting approach, and offers a worthy addition to the performing tradition, but has no stronger foundation in history than performances with larger ensembles.

That said, it would be wrong to suggest that it does not matter with how many singers and instrumentalists this work is performed. Some performers use choral forces which Bach very likely has never seen in his life, and were quite uncommon in his time. That goes for one of the two recordings under review here: the Choir of Trinity College comprises more than forty singers, which seems hardly tenable from a historical point of view. Considering that the Mass in b minor is mostly in five vocal parts, the size of William Christie's choir, consisting of a little over twenty singers, seems more in line with the performing habits of the time. In both performances, the soloists do not participate in the tutti sections. And that brings me to a very basic issue with regard to the performance of sacred music of the baroque period.

At that time no music was intended for soloists, choir and instruments. All music was fundamentally ensemble music, scored for voices and instruments as a unity. If a work included episodes for one or more solo voices, such as arias or recitatives, singers from the ensemble took care of them. From that perspective, both recordings miss the point. In the case of Bach's Mass in b minor, this is not that problematic from a practical point of view, as this work does not include any sections in which solo and tutti passages alternate and are completely integrated. Even so, both recordings ignore the basic concept of baroque sacred music.

Obviously, these two recordings are no immediate competitors, even though they came on the market almost simultaneously. The list of available recordings is impressive, and there is much to choose from, varying from 'traditional' performances with large choirs and orchestras on modern instruments to small-size interpretations with period instruments. The former category is really something of the past, and therefore William Christie's remarks in his personal notes in the booklet to his recording are a bit odd. "Bach's mass has been performed since the beginning of the Bach Revival 50 years ago and has much in common with the way Handel's oratorios were performed in the past. One only has to listen to a number of recordings past and present to detect the problem - exaggeratedly slow tempi played and sung by an exaggeratedly large number of musicians - it is as if serious and religious sentiments were synonymous with slowness. My tempi are brisk, not only in the soli and the duetti but in the D major trumpet choruses as well. Quicker tempi suggest a more physical and dance-like approach to the music." There seems to be no reason to emphasize this, as the 'old ways' are hardly relevant today. Yes, some of his tempi are fast, but the total duration of his performance is not fundamentally different from that of most performances I have reviewed in recent years. Even the difference between Christie and Layton (1.45'03" vs 1.48'43"') is hardly substantial, given the total length of this work. Christie is also not the fastest: Rudolf Lutz needs just 1.40'.

"I formed an orchestra and a chorus of modest proportions. Fewer musicians as well as the absence of a conductor creates an atmosphere of chamber music, giving an independence and a freedom to both soloists and instrumentalists", Christie adds. However, even though the size of the ensemble is 'modest', an "atmosphere of chamber music" is not exactly the impression I gained from his recording.

The Harmonia mundi production concerns the recording of a live performance. That has its pros and cons. The audience behaved well as I did not notice any noise. I was surprised that in the tutti sections the text is often hard to understand. This could well be the effect of the acoustic. I would have preferred a studio recording and a somewhat closer miking. The actual performance has its strenghts and weaknesses. As in so many recordings of this work, the first Kyrie is too bland, due to an insufficient articulation and a lack of dynamic accents. The singing is too much legato, and that is also the case in the second Kyrie. In comparison, Gloria in excelsis is much better. One of the best tutti sections is the Crucifixus; the string chords may be meant as an illustration of the nails being hammered into the cross, and this is realised by some powerful playing. Notable is the appoggiatura at the end, something I can't remember having ever heard before. The Sanctus is one of those sections where Christie takes a swifter tempo than most of his colleagues, and it works rather well.

The performances of the soloists are a mixed baggage. I have noticed in other recordings that Katherine Watson often uses too much vibrato. She is not free from that here either. However, it is more modest than elsewhere and not very wide. In the duets it is a little damaging as her partners (Tim Mead and Reinoud Van Mechelen) largely avoid it. It is a bit odd that Christie uses only four solo voices; given that the vocal parts of this work are largely in five parts, it is preferable to keep that texture in the solo line-up. As a result, Tim Mead is singing the second soprano part in 'Christe eleison'. This causes some balance problems, as Watson tends to overshadow him. Mead sings 'Qui sedes' and the Agnus Dei rather well; in the latter section, his use of vibrato is rather inconsistent. The same goes for Watson in 'Laudamus te'. The balance with Van Mechelen in 'Domine Deus' is better than in the other duet with Mead. Here I find the tempo a bit too fast, and as a result it lacks weight, which seems at odds with the text. Van Mechelen delivers a superb performance of the Benedictus; his singing is admirable, and he gives the piece just the right amount of firmness the text requires. André Morsch is disappointing, not only because of his incessant vibrato, but also his lack of expression. The two bass arias don't make a lasting impression.

Overall, this performance has several things to offer which I have enjoyed and which I rate positively. On the other hand, it has also substantial weaknesses, and as a result I would not rate this recording among the upper class of what is in the catalogue

As I stated above, these two performances are no immediate competitors, and therefore it does not make much sense to compare them. However, it is almost inevitable if they are reviewed together, and it can also be useful for the sake of argument. That is the case, for instance, with the Kyrie I, which in Stephen Layton's performance is articulated more effectively. Even so, it is not differentiated enough, and that also concerns the dynamic accents (or lack thereof). What I like is the increasing intensity Layton manages to create here. In 'Et in terra pax' I notice the dynamic accents I missed in the first Kyrie. Overall, the text of the tutti sections is more clearly understandable than in Christie's performance, and despite the size of the choir, the sound is quite transparent. That is also due to the lack of audible vibrato in the choral voices.

'Cum Sancto Spirito' is performed at a rather fast tempo, which I like. On the other hand, Layton's tempo in the Sanctus is too slow, which gives the piece some heaviness. In Christie's performance its jubilant character comes off much better. In the Crucifixus, the string chords are played piano, and here Christie hits the nail on the head. Generally, the tutti sections are among the best parts of this recording.

The solos show the same diversity as in Christie's performance. Again, Katherine Watson sings the first soprano part. Her performances are not fundamentally different from those in Christie's recording. In the Christe eleison, she is partnered by the mezzo-soprano Helen Charlston, and here the balance is better than in Christie's performance. The difference in vibrato is something I find hard to understand. Here the articulation in the strings considerably contributes to the effect of this performance. The duet with Gwylim Bowen, Domine Deus, is disappointing because of the incessant vibrato of both. The latter is also the problem in Bowen's performance of the Benedictus, which lacks the firmness of Van Mechelen's interpretation. The latter is hard to beat anyway. Layton has rightly observed the five-part texture in the solo department, but he is rather inconsistent in that the aria 'Laudamus te' is allocated to Katherine Watson, whereas the score has 'soprano II' here. The best of the soloists is Iestyn Davies, who is superior in the Agnus Dei. It is one of the highlights of this performance. 'Qui sedes' is also very well done. Neal Davies's performances are problematic. There is nothing wrong with his expression, and his diction and articulation are flawless. However, these positives are spoilt by his incessant vibrato, which I find hard to swallow.

In both recordings, the Latin text is pronounced the Italian way, which is historically definitely incorrect. Oddly enough, Tim Mead turns to the German pronunciation in the Agnus Dei. This just proves that this issue does not get the attention it deserves.

All said and done, this recording also has its virtues as well as its disappointments. On balance, I am just a little more satisfied with Layton's performance than with Christie's. But, as I wrote, there are so many recordings to choose from, that there is no reason to make a choice between these two. I am glad to have them both, but if I want to listen to a really satisfying recording, I will go somewhere else.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

Relevant links:

Helen Charlston
Iestyn Davies
Tim Mead
Reinoud Van Mechelen
André Morsch
Katherine Watson
Choir of Trinity College Cambridge
Les Arts Florissants
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

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